Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Crissier Chronicles 2008

We wrote our first "annual" newsletter in 2005, with every intention of starting a yearly tradition. However, 2006 and 2007 both ended in swirls, so here we are three years later with a lot of catching up to do.


We won't try to give a blow-by-blow of 2006. The year was dominated by a few big events, mostly work-related. We were in New Haven most of the year as Veronica pushed to finish her PhD research, write her dissertation, and find a post-doc. Our original plan was for her to finish in early autumn, after which we would take a few months off to travel the world before starting the next phase. Best laid plans - the dissertation got submitted two days before her starting date at the new job.

The new job was a post-doc at EPFL, the Swiss Polytechnic Institute in Lausanne. Veronica had a number of job prospects, including offers from research labs in northern Canada (cold) and northern England (grey). While she was preparing for job talks at two government labs near Washington, DC, Martin sat next to her in the hotel room drawing concentric circles radiating out of Lausanne at 100 mile intervals on a big map of Europe. By the time we'd made it through a massive Baltimore traffic jam on our way home, we had decided to take a deep breath and jump to Switzerland.

The decision was made easier because Martin was in employment limbo. After six years teaching at Wesleyan University, he was offered a new contract with an effective 12% cut in compensation. After the administration heard that he had begun contacting fellow adjunct faculty to discuss the cut, they gave him two hours to sign his contract as written or get lost. Meanwhile, the Kamusi Project, which Martin had been running for years, ran out of grant funding at the end of January. Enough private donations came in during the year for him to keep the project going on life support, but his "flexible" work status made it easy for us to move wherever Veronica could find the right lab. In November Martin took an advance trip to Switzerland, where he found us a six month sublet and put out feelers for work in Geneva.

Veronica defended her dissertation just before Christmas, which left her two weeks to make final revisions to her thesis based on her committee's comments. During that time we also packed what was coming with us, put a bunch of other things in storage, sold much of the rest (including two cars in one day), and put whatever was left out on the street in a neighborhood free-for-all. After Veronica flew to Lausanne, a group of good friends came to our rescue during a final day of packing and cleaning, and Martin followed two days behind her. Which puts us to January 15, 2007...


Veronica left Switzerland the day after she arrived, for her first meeting with the international group with which her new lab was collaborating. Turin sounds like a glamorous destination, but the trip started a theme of travel to exotic locales where most of the time is spent in meetings and cookie-cutter hotel rooms.

A few weeks into the year Veronica's father was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. We were close enough to get to Bucharest several times during his slow and painful decline. Nicusor Savu died at the end of November, and we buried him a few days later.

Settling into Lausanne was a challenge. Veronica's high-school French had more than a decade of rust, and Martin's French began and ended with "bonjour." Bit by bit we figured out the twisty geography, the stores, the transit system, and the customs of our new neighbors. We adjusted to buying all our groceries before 7 pm and never on a Sunday, having access to our building's laundry machines only on Saturday afternoons, and a diet centered on cheese, bread, and chocolate. We went skiing as often as possible, though global warming made the nearby Alps much less snowy than we were hoping. We made a habit of visiting Lausanne's large farmers' market on Saturday mornings. We started exploring the area around us whenever we had the weather and the time, not knowing whether we'd move after Veronica's one year contract came to an end.

Veronica became absorbed in her lab, with new projects and new collaborations. Unlike her thesis project, which required a 36 hour cryogenic cycle in order to accomplish even the slightest few minutes of progress, her new projects can move forward as quickly as she can work - at least when all the sensitive lab equipment is functioning. She has a friendly team of labmates and a boss who she enjoys working with, so we did not think too long about renewing her contract for a second year.

For someone who was officially unemployed throughout 2007, Martin was surprisingly overworked. Private donations to the Kamusi Project kept him working for the project "part time" (which meant working all the time and being paid very little), though the administrative structure of having the project housed at Yale while he lived in Switzerland made it very difficult to raise funds or pursue new directions. In May he asked Yale to either regularize his position or release the project. In September, after a bit of drama, the university released the project to Martin's new institutional home at the World Language Documentation Centre. We took on a lot of debt to finance the transition, which is still only partially paid off, but the result was a much firmer footing for the project going forward. To plan part of the project's development, Martin attended meetings in Marrakech, San Francisco, Paris, South Africa, and probably some other places that don't come quickly to mind.

Most of the rest of our manic travel in 2007 was for weddings. Our friends Jennie and Mike got married in Wisconsin, conveniently timed so we could also attend Veronica's graduation in New Haven. Grace and Mike (a different Mike) were married in Ireland in August, after Veronica's cousin Dorina tied the knot in northern Spain in July. We were in Barcelona earlier in the year as well for a meeting of Veronica's collaboration (Martin came down for the weekend beforehand, and then missed his flight back so had a couple of extra days to explore the city), and then Veronica had another collaboration meeting in Malta that we followed up with a few days of beach. We have come to know the Geneva airport very, very well.

In July we moved into a new apartment, a comfortable space in the town of Crissier with a huge balcony and a 270° view of the Alps, the Jura, and Lake Geneva. We had to invest in new furniture, and even, as is the Swiss way, install our own ceiling lights. The contents of our storage unit arrived from the States in September, and we bought a couch from departing friends in October, so the place slowly started to feel like home. We were happy to welcome a number of visitors during the year, and many more in 2008 - family, friends, friends of family, family of friends...

By the end of the year we were unable to face another airplane, so we took the train 29 hours back to Bucharest for a Christmas taking care of Veronica's grieving mother. Veronica slept most of the way, and once again we did not manage to write our annual letter.


This year was less hectic - fewer trips and steadier work. The Kamusi Project received a grant from the Canadian government, as part of the African Network for Localization, to develop an information technology terminology database for 12 African languages and to create computer locales for 100 African languages, and then the project received a grant from the US government to develop a full dictionary for the language of Rwanda. As a result, Martin spent most of April in Ghana working with his programming team, followed by a six week trip to South Africa, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Kenya to work on a number of elements of the project. Veronica joined him for the Tanzania portion of the trip, her first time in Africa. First we went to the house Martin built years ago in the remote village of Malangali, where Veronica got to meet the people she's been hearing about for so many years, and Martin got to celebrate his 40th birthday. Then we had a few days on Zanzibar, the highlight of which was Veronica petting an enormous sea turtle during a trial scuba dive.

Veronica was the busier flier this year. She had a collaboration meeting in northern Finland in February, which was exactly as cold and dark as it sounds. Then she had to take a completely stupid 3-day trip to the US to have her fingerprints taken (again) for her green card, followed by trips to Oregon and Chicago for conferences. She did have one meeting in a "fun" place - Athens in September. It was Martin's turn to piggy-back - we took a solid week on Crete, where Veronica got her scuba certification in Chania and we enjoyed a couple of quiet days on the south coast for our anniversary. We had an unexpected adventure when we got back to Athens on Saturday night and found out that Madonna was playing the city so 16,000 visitors had taken every available room; we did some quick research and we jumped a train to a hotel two hours away in Corinth, where we had a birthday lunch for Veronica at a local no-menu restaurant that was hands-down the best place we ate all year.

One October weekend we took a "trip to somewhere." Martin had to meet with a colleague in Wales, and they decided to combine business with a social visit. Veronica did not know where we were going until we got to the boarding gate. It was a wet and wild weekend, much different from the warm beach Veronica had been imagining we were going to. In response, she had us find the cheapest tickets we could get to somewhere southern - so we ended up with a weekend in Lisbon. Portugal in December was even colder than Wales, but we heard some great music, filled up on octopus, and strolled through some chilly museums and castles.

Veronica's father had left behind a Dacia Logan, a Romanian-built car aimed at the "super budget" segment of the auto market "to compete with the world's cheapest cars." In March we drove that car home from Bucharest. Our intent was to see a bit of Europe on the drive back. After two solid days behind the wheel in Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, and Switzerland, we can report that Europe looks like a very long highway, with a bunch of mountains, a pretty river, and a splash of Adriatic blue at Trieste. We took the car for one other expedition, to the Cinque Terre/ Tuscany area of Italy for a long weekend (Pentacost is a national holiday here), but otherwise it has mostly served for local sightseeing and weekend trips to the grocery store.

The most significant news of the year was that Veronica received a competitive grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation to pursue her research for another three years. This gives her funding to pursue her own projects, while remaining a senior member of her current lab. It also means that we can plan the next three years with some degree of confidence that we will be in Lausanne until the end of 2011. We celebrated by buying a fridge that is large enough to hold more than one day of groceries, and we hope even more exciting life-altering events will follow in 2009.

Our typical workdays are fairly mundane. Martin has a twenty second commute to his desk, while it takes Veronica about twenty minutes via bus and metro to get to her office. Veronica spends much of the day making and testing new devices in the lab. Martin sits at the computer and works on dictionary entries, or works remotely with his collaborators. We both write grant proposals and project reports, and deal with administrivia. Sometimes Martin slips out for a French class or to meet with a language partner - after almost two years here, he now speaks French almost as well as a two-year-old. We joined a gym in October (Martin went into semi-retirement from Ultimate in September, after scoring a spectacular Callahan goal for the Lausanne team on the first throw of the first game of the Swiss National Championships), so now we often meet there for a workout before a late dinner. Then we get up and do it again the next day...

And that brings us up-to-date. December 31, 2008 - snow is falling outside, Veronica's visiting mother and aunt are in the kitchen cooking Romanian goodies for New Year's Eve, and we are banging away on the computer as usual.

We'll try to be back again next year with another exciting edition of the Crissier Chronicles. Meanwhile, please send us your news and pictures, track us on Facebook and Flickr, and maybe even swing by for a visit. The hardest part about living in Switzerland is being so far away from most of our friends and all of our family, so we look forward to hearing from you.

We wish you all the best for 2009!